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WAGNER: When a Republican president inspired Alberta patriots

Michael Wagner examines how Ronald Reagan’s election in the 1980s gave common cause to Canadian conservatives and Western sovereigntists.

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A Liberal named Trudeau is re-elected prime minister of Canada and goes to war against Alberta’s oil industry. Soon afterwards, a controversial Republican is elected president of the United States. The new president is vociferously hated by the mainstream media, but provides ideological inspiration for elements of Alberta’s independence movement. That description might sound like the last few years, but it also accurately portrays the early 1980s. 

In our era of historical amnesia, it might not be front of mind, but the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 conferred considerable new prominence and credibility on conservative ideas not only in the United States, but in Western Canada as well.

The Alberta independence movement began to take shape in the 1970s and really took off after the return of Pierre Trudeau in February 1980. It was well understood at the time that independence supporters were ideologically conservative or libertarian. After all, a major component of the conflict with Trudeau was whether Canada’s energy needs were best served by free enterprise (i.e., the oilmen who actually built the petroleum industry) or socialistic policies (i.e., federal government central planners in Ottawa). Conservatives and libertarians, of course, clearly favoured the first alternative, whereas leftists (most Eastern Tories, Liberals or New Democrats) favoured the second. 

The decades after the Great Depression saw free enterprise principles lose ground to the ideals of central government planning. Keynesian economics became popular, and governments in Western countries believed they could manipulate the economy to create prosperity. Pierre Trudeau’s execrable National Energy Program (NEP) fell within this stream of thought. In fact, free market economics was so out-of-style that in 1980 Memorial University sociologist J. D. House published his study of Calgary oilmen under the title, The Last of the Free Enterprisers.  

With this in mind, the significance of Reagan’s election for the Alberta independence movement can be understood. As University of Calgary political scientist Roger Gibbins wrote in his 1981 article, “American Influence on Western Separatism” (in the book Western Separatism: The Myths, Realities & Dangers), “the Reaganite drift, if not stampede, to neoconservatism offers moral support to the separatists’ ideological crusade.”

Cover of “Last Of The Free Enterprisers”

That is to say, the election of Ronald Reagan provided a degree of credibility for the conservative political ideals of Alberta’s independence supporters that had not existed previously. 

The ideological perspective of the independence movement was essentially the same as American conservativism and Reagan’s success strengthened the movement’s legitimacy. As Gibbins explained, “This correspondence with the United States provides considerable moral support for the separatist cause for it appears to place the separatists within the mainstream of contemporary North American political thought. Even though the ideological position of the separatists is a minority one within Canada, even though the separatist supporters have been the ideological losers in a wide range of policy decisions over the past few decades, the American scene holds out the promise that the separatists are riding the ideological wave of the future rather than of the past.”

In other words, independence supporters were no longer political “dinosaurs” resisting the inevitable tide of history towards socialism. Instead, they were part of a broader trend towards limited government that had taken hold in the world’s largest and most powerful economy. The election of Ronald Reagan clearly indicated that the oilmen of Calgary weren’t “the last of the free enterprisers” after all.

Political conservatism was not the only point of ideological convergence between Westerners and Americans. As Gibbins noted, “In the past, the ideological climates of the Canadian and American Wests shared a populist base; political protest in both regions arrayed ‘the people’ against the established political institutions rooted in central Canada and the eastern seaboard of the United States. Populism is still characteristic of the separatist movement and in that sense serves to entwine the separatist movement with American political values.”

Populism is commonly believed to have been a major factor in the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, and populism is still evident in many parts of Alberta.

The general similarity of political perspectives between people in the West and the U.S. did not go unnoticed, especially among supporters of Alberta independence. As Gibbins explained, “to separatists, the West is not only different from the East but is also very similar to the United States in terms of political values and ideological predispositions; the West is placed within the mainstream of American, although not Canadian, values. This correspondence, it should be noted, is widely assumed by western Canadians.” To prove his point, Gibbins cited data from a 1980 Canada West Foundation survey indicating that 53 per cent of Westerners agreed with the statement that “in many ways western Canadians have more in common with the western United States than with eastern Canada,” while only 36 per cent disagreed.

As mentioned, there are certain historical parallels between the early 1980s and the current situation: Trudeau prime ministers in Canada and controversial Republican presidents in the United States. The ideological movements undergirding the presidents provide a degree of ideological credibility to Alberta’s independence supporters – conservatism in the case of President Reagan and populism in the case of President Trump. 

The Alberta independence movement arose in the early 1980s – and came back to life after the 2015 federal election – due to domestic events, not foreign ones. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for political movements of both the left and right in Canada to be inspired by events in the United States (Black Lives Matter being a conspicuous recent example). In this vein, the conservative success represented by the election of President Reagan provided credibility to the ideological perspective of Alberta’s independence movement in the 1980s.

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include 'Alberta: Separatism Then and Now' and 'True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.'

Opinion

ANDRUS: Kenney prepares to fight “all-out war” from his knees

“A constitutional convention may be the only way to keep the country together. Without one, enflamed regional anger will continue to divide the country and the viability of remaining a single nation will continue to deteriorate.”

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“The only time in the Speech from the Throne that Saskatchewan was essentially mentioned was in the phase out of our energy industry workers.”  

That was Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s response to the massive shift in direction signaled by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Throne Speech on Wednesday. His words rang true across the West and the fight for the heart of the energy industry has ramped up yet again.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney described the Throne Speech as a “full-frontal attack” on the constitution.

“There were more policies that invade provincial jurisdiction than I could count,” said Kenney. “Alberta will continue to work with our allies across the country to focus on lives and livelihoods.”

From the reaction of the premiers, it is now clear that national unity hangs in the balance.

The announcement of ambitious legislation guaranteed to be detrimental to the interests of Westerners, pits Moe and Kenney against the full might of a federal government targeting the heart of the energy industry.

The rhetoric both have displayed in recent days highlights the rage bubbling amongst their electorates, already concerned about their futures, but rhetoric is just that.

While both premiers have talked the talk, angry citizens await firm action. In Alberta, Kenney has slow walked his Fair Deal plan to a crawl. Two of his best options – a provincial pension plan and referendum to abolish equalization – have been delayed until next fall at the earliest. Constitutional challenges, while bold in rhetoric, will take years to unwind. Strong letters are just words on a page; empty threats unless backed up with strong action.

More than ever, the need for bold leadership is of vital importance. The constitution is under attack. Western alienation, scoffed at by the Laurentian establishment and Trudeau himself, is on the rise. Further delays will only see that anger redirected at provincial governments and Premiers that are seen to be waffling. Watering down messaging in a time when strong action is needed will further weaken the fabric of national unity.

The next few months will demonstrate clearly that constitutional reform is required to strengthen national unity and provide equal footing for provinces wary of federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction. The current constitutional order is designed to favour voter-heavy provinces, with no real defence available to smaller provinces.

A constitutional convention may be the only way to keep the country together. Without one, enflamed regional anger will continue to divide the country and the viability of remaining a single nation will continue to deteriorate.

These reforms are long past due. It’s time to recognize gravity of the situation and act. Words will simply fall on deaf ears.

Josh Andrus is a columnist with the Western Standard and the Executive Director of Project Confederation.

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Opinion

BYFIELD: An open letter to Jason Kenney

Vince Byfield writes that the UCP risks losing power if it does not let Albertans vote directly on its future.

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Editors Note: The following guest column is an open letter from Vince Byfield

Dear Premier Kenney,

A recent Alberta poll showed the NDP tied for support with your UCP at 38 per cent, and the remaining 24 per cent broken into a variety of smaller parties, several of them sovereigntist. It appears from this poll that your unification of the right is unravelling, with some Albertans now turning to independence, and some to socialism. 

The fault of this splintering of the right falls squarely on your shoulders, and your refusal to explore and explain to Albertans all of the political options available to them. 

Instead, your decision to schedule a non-binding referendum on equalization two-and-a-half years after your election just isn’t good enough. You’re moving too slowly, sir. You have to do more, and you have to do it now. That’s what you were elected to do, and with each passing week you are wasting your mandate. Your base is now abandoning you, and you risk re-electing the NDP. Your foot-dragging carries the very real risk of Alberta falling into a socialist oblivion from which it may never recover. 

All because you are not doing the right thing for Albertans. Clinging to a confederation that is so unbalanced, so unstable that it has to rob Albertans en masse to bribe Quebecers to stay in Canada is madness. And yet this, Premier Kenney, is precisely what you are perpetuating with your procrastination. Wasting precious time like this effectively buries our children and grandchildren with $200 million more crippling debt every single week. 
Enough is enough. This must to stop. By continuing to do nothing constructive to correct Alberta’s biggest grievance, conservative Albertans are left with no choice but to chart a future with someone who will.

As I see it, Albertans have three options: one, remain in confederation; two, become an independent nation; or three, become Americans. Yet of those three options you support the first, dismiss the second, and ignore the third. Why is that? Why do you appear to be going to great lengths to hide the third option from Albertans?

We have tried and failed with option one. We have been a part of confederation for 115 years. There are clear inequalities which we have endeavored earnestly for decades to repair. Time and time again, the rest of Canada has rejected us. Now they don’t even bother to respond. It’s clear to any Albertan with any semblance of common sense that further attempts to work within option one is futile and hopeless. Ottawa politicians are tired of listening to useless whining, and quite frankly, so are Albertans.

Option two is by no means the cure all. Becoming an independent nation of four million souls surrounds us with one nation ten-times our size (the rest of Canada, now angry at our departure) and the other a hundred-times our size (the United States, now self-sufficient in oil and protectionist). History shows us how large nations typically treat much smaller ones, and it is not pretty. Yet, in spite of this dismal future, many Albertans are now so mad about Canada that they see independence as their only recourse. They believe this because their leaders – like you – are not informing them of the third option. 

You promised transparency in your government, but then you choose to black out 134 pages – or 90 per cent – of the Fair Deal Panel’s documentation. The idea of conducting a public inquiry and then refusing to let the public see what it found is confusing a great many of your supporters. It is clear you are hiding something. What are you so desperately trying to keep away from Albertans? Why was the third option not even discussed? 

When Albertans carefully consider all three options – when the fog of anti-American rhetoric is given time to clear – becoming part of the United States stands out as the only really sensible solution.

Here is the roadmap to Alberta statehood as I understand it. First, we must hold a referendum on independence. The United States cannot recognize or negotiate with Alberta until we sever ties with Canada by having the majority of Albertans vote in favour of independence from Canada. This referendum essentially serves as a declaration of independence. 

The biggest benefit of a successful independence referendum is that it effectively serves notice to Ottawa that the equalization and other transfers are over. The Canadian government and its revenue agency would no longer have any standing on Alberta soil. Albertans will file their income taxes – all of their income taxes – with the new national Alberta government. Along with the end of equalization payments the begging to Ottawa will no longer be necessary.

Once we declare ourselves independent, Albertans are well advised to schedule a second referendum swiftly to determine how many Albertans would then want to become a part of the United States of America. If passed, Alberta would then formally apply to be admitted as a territory or protectorate of the United States.

This is not a new path. It has essentially been followed in the vast majority of cases since the first 13 colonies declared independence and formed the United States of America. Other than the original 13 Colonies, most states that joined the union were first unincorporated US territories. We would be following in the footsteps of what would later grow, prosper, and become powerful states in their own right, like California. 

Alternatively, Alberta could follow the path of Texas, which was admitted directly to full statehood quickly after declaring its independence from Mexico. 

Being a territory or protectorate of the United States is not the same as being a state. Statehood would be an option at a later time and would require a third referendum by Albertans. However, US territorial status gives Albertans at least three very important benefits right away.

First, instant US citizenship to every Albertan and the freedom to travel, work and trade anywhere in that great nation. Furthermore, Americans are free to travel and, more importantly, invest in Alberta. This means badly needed jobs will return. Business will be able to thrive. Albertans will be able to enjoy real freedom and real prosperity once more.

Second, immediate US military protection. When the most powerful nation on the planet vows to defend Alberta, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows that sending Canadian soldiers onto Alberta soil would be impossible. Therefore, US territorial status assures a peaceful resolution for Albertans whatever they decide to do next.

Third, freedom to leave the United States at a later date. Being a US territory – and not a state — means Albertans are not obligated to remain a part of the United States. Albertans would be given the freedom and time to heal and consider the future that is best for ourselves.   

As a US territory, we even have the freedom to return to Canadian confederation, should Albertans decide to forgive Ottawa and Quebec for their swindles of the past 115 years. 

Critically, Alberta would have the right to negotiate the terms of entering the American union. This contrasts with Alberta’s entry into confederation in 1905, which was unilaterally dictated by Ottawa without any negotiation or consultation.  

We may also decide to remain as a US territory. This gives us all the freedoms and benefits described above, but US territorial status does have one important price: no political representation in Congress. As a territory, we may not be able to elect Alberta senators or Albertans to the House of Representatives, but we will be able to vote for the next president. This means that Alberta’s liberals and socialists will be free to vote for the Democrats, and conservatives for the Republicans.

Most importantly, as a US territory – and no longer crippled by Quebec’s multi-billion-dollar ransom payments –  Albertans would be able to focus on what we do best: working hard and prospering. 

Premier Kenney, you still have time, but not much. I propose you schedule a referendum on our independence to be held no later than Alberta Day, August 3, 2021. If you do this, I predict that your base will return – their confidence in you restored – and the nightmarish possibility of another NDP Alberta reign of error banished to the realm of socialist dreams.

Failure to follow through on this proposal puts your supporters in a difficult situation. Failure to show real leadership for Albertans means we have little choice but to find a real leader with the guts to do the job. Are you that leader? I hope and pray your answer is yes, but am prepared to act if you are not.  

Please accord Albertans the courtesy of a response and your reasons. If those reasons are examined and found wanting, be assured that conservative Albertans will not sit idly by while you continue to wreck our province. We will act.

Jason, no one would regard your position as enviable. Your love of Canada is without question. We all love Canada. But when put to the test, when forced to choose between Canada and the calculated destruction of Alberta, the needs of Albertans must be your highest priority.

Sincerely,
Vince Byfield

Vincent Byfield is manager of SEARCH, publisher of the 12-volume history series “The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years” and other history books. Since 1973 Vince has worked with his father, Ted Byfield, to publish Alberta Report Newsmagazine and his brother, Link Byfield, who was elected in 2004 as an independent senator-in-waiting for Alberta.

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Opinion

TERRAZZANO: Alberta needs recall legislation now

“Recall rules would be a big step towards reaffirming the role of citizens as boss. It’s time for Kenney to make good on his promise and pass recall legislation during the upcoming fall legislative session.”

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When most of us stink at our jobs, we get sent packing. That standard doesn’t apply to politicians, who don’t need to worry about impressing their boss, taxpayers, outside of an election every four years. 

Fortunately, Premier Jason Kenney promised to change that by introducing recall legislation. 

“Albertans want their MLAs to be accountable to them. That’s why a United Conservative government would introduce a Recall Act allowing voters to fire their MLA in between elections if they have lost the public’s trust,” Kenney said while on the campaign trail ahead of the 2019 provincial election.

“Empowering citizens to hold their MLAs to account will strengthen Alberta democracy.”

The most obvious benefit of recall legislation is allowing voters to hold misbehaving politicians accountable more than once every four years. Recall legislation in British Columbia helped citizens give former MLA Paul Reitsma the bootwhen he got caught sending fake letters to the editor. 

There are several examples where recall could have been used by Alberta voters. 

Take the case of former premier Allison Redford. It took months of mounting political pressure over expense scandals, including the infamous $45,000 South Africa trip, for internal political machinery to finally force her to step down. Or consider former Lethbridge coun. Darlene Heatherington, who refused to step down after being charged with fabricating a story about a stalker. In both cases, recall could have been a handy accountability tool for voters, who should be the ones making these decisions.  

The on-going scandal over Calgary’s Coun. Joe Magliocca’s expenses is another example where citizens should have the ability to hand out a pink slip through the recall process. 

Ensuring citizens can hold their elected officials accountable is crucial, but just as important is the role that recall rules could play in discouraging politicians from messing up in the first place. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to understand that a politician will think twice before blowing tax dollars on steaks and martinis if there’s a chance they could have to face the voters immediately rather than in four years.

Alberta’s recall rules must be extended to the local level, so voters have the same ability to hold local councillors and mayors accountable as they will with MLAs. Fortunately, the government’s last throne speech promised exactly that. 

“To further make life better for Albertans, my government will undertake significant reforms to strengthen democracy in Alberta, including the tabling of … a recall act, allowing constituents to remove their MLAs, municipal councillors, mayors,  and school board trustees from office between elections,” reads the speech.  

When designing recall legislation, Kenney must make sure the requirements to force a by-election aren’t too onerous. Beyond the Reitsma example, there hasn’t been any successful recall campaigns in B.C. This is partly because of B.C.’s onerous requirement to collect signatures for more than 40 per cent of eligible voters in that district in 60 days. 

This threshold puts B.C. at the upper limit when compared to American states, where the most common requirement is to have 25 per cent of votes cast in the last election to sign the petition to trigger a byelection. A 25 per cent threshold would be a good starting point for Alberta’s recall rules to balance political stability with accountability, and is what the Canadian Taxpayers Federation recommended in our presentation to the Alberta government’s Democratic Accountability Committee. The most important thing to remember when thinking about signature thresholds, however, is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Albertans need recall now, and politicians can always tinker with the requirements down the road to make improvements. 

Recall rules would be a big step towards reaffirming the role of citizens as boss. It’s time for Kenney to make good on his promise and pass recall legislation during the upcoming fall legislative session. 

Franco Terrazzano is the Alberta Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. This column is an abbreviated version of the presentation he made for the Alberta government’s Democratic Accountability Committee.

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